Monday, May 11, 2020

Communion on the Tongue: Episcopal Oversight, the Common Good, and Useful Lessons from Tradition

A number of people online have been promoting the idea that Canon 223 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law gives bishops the authority to deny the Catholic faithful communion on the tongue and to require communion in the hand for anyone receiving.

Let’s have a look at the canon.
Can. 223 §1. In exercising their rights, the Christian faithful, both as individuals and gathered together in associations, must take into account the common good of the Church, the rights of others, and their own duties toward others.
§2. In view of the common good, ecclesiastical authority can direct the exercise of rights which are proper to the Christian faithful.
As I mentioned in my last article, “Contempt for Communion and the Mechanization of Mass,” the notion of “the common good” can be too breezily invoked to cover a multitude of sins.

The first thing we need to consider is a theological fact that has more authority than any canon law or any interpretation thereof: that, as St. Thomas Aquinas teaches [1], the common good of the entire universe is found in Christ, and Christ is really present in the Holy Eucharist, as the same saint memorably conveys in the Magnificat antiphon for Vespers of Corpus Christi:
O sacrum convivium, in quo Christus sumitur: recolitur memoria passionis eius: mens impletur gratia: et futurae gloriae nobis pignus datur. Alleluia. (O sacred banquet, in which Christ is received, the memory of his Passion is renewed, the mind is filled with grace, and a pledge of future glory is given to us. Alleluia.)
This means the Holy Eucharist IS the common good of the entire universe. Therefore, when we are considering how Communion ought to be distributed, the first and last consideration must be what we owe to God in loving Him above all others; we owe Him fitting reverence in all that we do and say. The Blessed Sacrament is not just “one more thing” over which a bishop has control, even if there is a limited sense in which he may establish norms for his diocese not contrary to universal norms (unless expressly permitted to do so; and even then, we should recall the statement of the Apostle: “all things are lawful to me, but all things are not expedient,” 1 Cor. 6, 12).

If we take seriously the truth of which Aquinas reminds us, we will see that Can. 223 §1 is obliging us to “take into account the common good of the Church” — above all, Christ Himself in the Eucharist — and, in that light, “the rights of others, and their own duties toward others.” The faithful have the right to see the Eucharist properly treated by all; our duties include building up the Body of Christ in holiness, which is incompatible with any kind of irreverence or unworthy experimentation, such as the German methods of Coronacommunion depicted in my last article.

Inevitably, the question arises: What is and what is not reverent? It seems to me very dangerous to say that bishops, all by themselves, get to determine the answer to this question, in a positivist vacuum. That is an anti-traditional nominalism that Catholics should not abide. Meanwhile, it is clear that the current situation will show which bishops have a supernatural perspective and which ones have a merely natural perspective.

More interesting is Can. 223 §2: “In view of the common good, ecclesiastical authority can direct the exercise of rights which are proper to the Christian faithful.” This canon suffers more than usually from the vagueness that is a necessary fault (as it were) of any code of law, but it is clear that it must be interpreted in light of the general norms of the law. Thus, for instance, Can. 135 §2 states, in part: “A lower legislator cannot validly issue a law contrary to higher law.” Given no provision for overruling the liturgical norms in force — which norms are extremely clear, repeated numerous times, as I and others have demonstrated (most recently in this article) — any bishop’s attempt to deny the right to receive Holy Communion on the tongue is unlawful on its face. [2]

Beyond this more theoretical consideration, we may note — as countless bloggers and online commenters have already done — that the USCCB has quasi-adopted a set of guidelines from the Thomistic Institute that state: “We believe that, with the precautions listed here, it is possible to distribute on the tongue without unreasonable risk.” [3] Although I do not agree with many of the Thomistic Institute’s precautions (for the reasons given in my last article), they at least recognize, as have various dioceses here and there (Portland being the best known), that there is no unreasonable risk in proceeding with the method that is still the Church’s universal norm.

Archbishop Chaput giving Holy Communion:
note optimal height relationship
Practical Issues with Communion on the Tongue

However, here I must speak plainly, and cut through the rigmarole. It is time for the hierarchy of the Church to recognize that the bishops themselves have caused the problem with sanitary communion on the tongue precisely by abolishing (or, at any rate, discouraging for decades) the traditional manner of receiving — namely, kneeling shoulder-to-shoulder along an altar rail, with a server holding a chin paten. [4] This method became universal for good reason. Quite apart from its superior reverence,[5] it is highly practical, for three reasons:

First, it was normally done only by a priest, who had gained expertise from daily experience, as opposed to the rotating schedules of Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion who may or may not know how to place the host properly on the tongue, and who often come across as hesitant, embarrassed, perplexed, or irritated at having to do so.

Second, the priest walking along the communion rail stands at an optimal height at which to place the host easily on the communicant’s tongue. It is vastly more awkward to try to give communion on the tongue to someone standing in front of you, especially if he or she is taller. The traditional method makes it far more likely that a priest will not have any immediate physical contact with the faithful, as opposed to communion in the hand where he will touch many, many germy hands — unless he follows the proposal to drop the host into the hand like a payload from a bomber, which brings with it problems of its own.

Third, because the faithful come up to the altar rail in waves, they have a chance to settle themselves on their knees and can calmly prepare for the priest coming to them. By the time he arrives, the communicant can have his or her head tilted back and be ready. There’s no unseemly rushing. (In the traditional form of communion, the priest says the prayer: “Corpus Domini nostri…” and concludes with the “Amen”; the recipient does not have to move his lips and risk either discharging saliva or accidentally touching the priest’s hand. In other words, it works perfectly in a time of epidemic.)

Bishop Ronald Gainer distributing Holy Communion in the traditional manner
All Catholics should be aware that if they wish to receive on the tongue, they should kneel — regardless of which form of the Mass they are attending or whom they are receiving from. They should kneel, first, because it is the Lord God before whom the angels fall on their faces; and second, because, when they kneel, tilt back their head, and protrude their tongue, it will be very easy for the host to be placed on it.

A seasoned priest who celebrates both forms of the Mass, Fr. Allan J. McDonald, shares some excellent thoughts at his blog Southern Orders [6]:
I know because I celebrate both forms of the one Roman Rite that kneeling for Holy Communion makes it easier for me not to touch the tongue of the communicant in the EF Mass if the communicant does what I was taught about receiving Holy Communion as a second grader. You tilt your head slightly back, stick out your tongue in a natural not exaggerated way and wait for the priest to withdraw his hand prior to retracting one’s tongue or moving one’s head forward.
       In the EF Mass the priest responds amen for the communicant thus neutralizing any spittle from becoming aerosolized and attaching to the priest’s fingers while these are close to the communicant’s mouth.
       Other temporal life-saving aspects of the Extraordinary Form of the Mass are these, which the Ordinary Form is recovering for the temporal health of the laity and priest(s):
       1. Ad orientem, the priest’s aerosolized words go toward the wall not the congregation.
       2. Hymn books are now deemed a deadly device if Coronavirus attaches to them and are being removed from pews. Thus the choir or cantor needs to chant the entrance chant, hopefully the official Introit and the laity actually participate by meditating on what is chanted rather than joining in and aerosolizing the air with their viruses.
       3. The offertory gifts are not touched by anyone, similar to the EF Mass where only the priest touches the sacred vessels — except in the EF it is out of reverence, [while] in the OF it will be out of fear of contagion or viruses attaching to the vessels carried by the laity.
       4. Kneeling for Holy Communion will finally be seen by bishops as the only healthy way to receive Holy Communion without hand-to-hand contact or hand-to-tongue contact, unfortunately not because it is more reverent to receive in the EF manner.
       5. The Common Chalice will never return to the laity out an abundance of fear that Coronavirus will live on and in the chalice and the Precious Blood diluted with copious amounts of numerous communicants’ saliva. Unfortunately the concerning of profanation of the Precious Blood by contaminants or spilling it is not the major concern as it should be.
       6. Priests will no longer be glad-handing the laity before and after Mass; although unlikely, this may lead to priests praying privately to God before and after Mass, which is a custom of the EF Mass.
       7. To prevent aerosolizing of speech with Coronavirus in the floating spittle, silence will be demanded in the church before and after Mass and physical distancing amidst the silence not because the Blessed Sacrament is there and demands silent adoration, but out of a concern for temporal health.
       8. Of course the handshake/hug of peace will disappear out of fear of offending social distancing civil law — not because it is a horrible distraction during the Communion Rite.
Bishop Joseph Perry gives Holy Communion at St. John Cantius
As Fr. McDonald frequently points out on his blog, the Extraordinary Form in fact has better customs in everything that concerns the Blessed Sacrament: its preparation, its consecration, its distribution, its reservation. Many of these will end up being adopted again in Coronatide, not (alas) because Catholics are awakening to the Real Presence and what is most fitting for our approach to the Lord, but out of fear of contamination or sickness. Sadly, this motive is even less noble than imperfect contrition — fear of hell — as a motivation for going to Confession. That, at least, is a concern for one’s immortal destiny after this life, rather than a fixation on this fleeting mortal life that we will all one day have to give up, whether from a virus or from one of ten thousand other natural or violent causes that threaten the poor, banished children of Eve.

It is appropriate for us to ask how we can mitigate risks, but not with the secular mentality of agnostic utilitarians who do not remember and do not take to heart the Lord with Whom we are dealing in the Most Blessed Sacrament. Ironically, it is Catholic tradition, not postconciliar praxis, that holds an array of useful approaches in a time of epidemic. These are ready to be implemented — if anyone cares about the common good of the entire universe and our sacramental participation in it.


[1] See Super I ad Cor., cap. 12, lec. 3.

[2] As a side-note: since we know that canon law can, at times, be poorly formulated — criticisms have been freely made by canonists on certain points of both the 1917 and the 1983 codes — I will take this occasion to state that the formulation of Can. 223 §2 is disturbing. How far can it be taken? “Direct the exercise of rights which are proper to the Christian faithful.” All such rights? For example, could a bishop say “I direct you not to get married” or “I direct you to enter religious life”? After all, those are rights proper to the faithful… Without a layman having committed a serious public fault, it is difficult to see how any such directive could be legitimate.

[3] The Thomistic Institute states: “Opinions on this point are varied within the medical and scientific community: some believe Communion on the tongue involves an elevated and, in the light of all the circumstances, an unreasonable risk; others disagree. If Communion on the tongue is provided, one could consider using hand sanitizer after each communicant who receives on the tongue.” This last is a deplorable suggestion, deservedly ridiculed by Fr. Zuhlsdorf.

[4] As demonstrated in “Why We Should Retain or Reintroduce the Communion Plate (‘Chin Paten’),” this practice is called for even by the General Instruction of the Roman Missal that governs the Ordinary Form.

[5] See the article “‘Eat That Which I Will Give You’: Why We Receive Communion in the Mouth.”

[6] I have edited the text slightly.

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